A Hall of Fame induction inspires a push for more arts education funding
By Josh Kurtz
On Friday, Tupac Shakur, the controversial hip-hop pioneer who was murdered two decades ago, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Two days earlier, on Wednesday, a former bandmate and other admirers will, in the rapper’s name and with his legacy very much in mind, host a fundraising concert in Baltimore to promote the importance of arts education.
The three-act concert, which will feature several different styles of music – including a most un-Tupac-like classical flutist – is designed to raise awareness (and money) for arts education in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The effort, spearheaded by a new nonprofit group called Major Key, aims to go national eventually.
“This particular program is directly in line with some the things that Tupac talked about,” said E.D.I. Mean, an original member of Tupac’s group Outlawz, who will perform Wednesday and who still tours with the band. “He wanted to provide a safe haven where at-risk kids can pursue their crafts.”
Tupac is largely associated with New York, where he mostly grew up. But it’s easy to forget that he had a Baltimore connection. He moved to the city when he was a teenager – his mother, who was a former Black Panther, thought the change of scenery would keep him out of trouble – and later attended the Baltimore School for the Arts.
An interesting cast of characters has come together to launch Major Key and promote arts education.
A Baltimore hip-hop artist named Czar (pronounced “Caesar”), who was influenced by Tupac and performed in episodes of “The Wire,” is one of the founders. He said he was alarmed by the Baltimore city school district’s $131 million debt. Arts programs would face a major hit and school kids could be robbed of an important outlet for their creativity – which persuaded him to get involved.
“It connects personally,” he said. “It’s helping out these kids, with Baltimore schools $131 million in the red, it seemed like everything lined up.”
To prepare for the April 5 concert at the Baltimore Sound Stage, he has been working with a professional flutist, Sofia Haiu.
“If the government’s going to cut these programs to pieces, we’re going to be there to pick up the slack,” Czar said.
Driving the effort is a former political operative named Steven Stenberg. Stenberg is a familiar name in national and Maryland politics — a successful direct mail consultant with the firm The Strategy Group who had worked for President Obama and myriad other prominent Democrats and decided he was ready for a change.
“I got divorced and divorced myself from politics,” he explained.
The concert Wednesday will feature a variety of professional performers, plus student groups. The goal, the organizers said, is to raise enough money to set up pilot after-school programs in Baltimore and D.C., then expand the idea to other cities.
Stenberg hopes the group can raise at least $300,000 a year in its first couple of years. He said he is donating $40,000.
Stenberg said creating the nonprofit and putting together the show feels like a political campaign. And while all the participants care deeply about the arts, they are ready to wage political war to achieve their goals.
“The blend of culture and politics is pretty amazing,” he said.
E.D.I. Mean – Tupac gave him the moniker as a playful nod to the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, because he was a sworn enemy of the U.S. – said he has known Czar for several years and was happy to help when asked.
“If I can do anything that’s in line with Tupac’s core, I’ve got to do it,” he said.